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Matthew Coller: The Vikings asked too much of Jaren Hall vs. Packers

The Vikings put the season on the shoulders of the rookie quarterback and it blew up in their face

MINNEAPOLIS — Legendary coach Marv Levy once said, “where would you rather be than right here, right now?” Well, Minnesota Vikings head coach Kevin O’Connell would have rather been anywhere else than US Bank Stadium on Sunday night as his decision to start rookie quarterback Jaren Hall imploded along with the Vikings’ chances to make the playoffs.

Things went sideways from the outset of the Vikings’ 33-10 loss to the Green Bay Packers and the only plus side was that Vikings fans got to start the New Year’s Eve started early because the game was essentially over by halftime. Hall, who was pulled at halftime in favor of veteran Nick Mullens, finished with five completions on 10 pass attempts for 67 yards, one interception and three back-breaking sacks.

“If I was the coach I would have made the same decision,” a stunned Hall said in the locker room following the game.

Hall was placed in the starting role because the rookie was the only button left to push. The Vikings had already run out of patience with Josh Dobbs struggling to operate the offense effectively and Nick Mullens turning the ball over repeatedly so they turned to the only player with whom they didn’t have a big enough sample size to be sure they couldn’t win with him.

In his only start prior to Sunday night, Hall looked fairly comfortable against the Atlanta Falcons before getting injured on the second drive of the game and he apparently practiced well enough to be deserving of the QB2 spot the previous two weeks with Mullens as QB1. Other than that, the Vikings’ staff was only working with information from training camp and preseason. O’Connell acknowledged during the week that they were making a bet on his positive traits.

But in hindsight leaning on a rookie fifth-rounder, whose college football was played against so much lesser competition in comparison to the NFL that it would be like asking a high schooler to bat against Jorge Lopez, to save the season on national TV while missing the No. 1 tight end was way too heavy a burden. That particularly applies when he was not given much help from the gameplan or a banged-up defense.

One of the issues that has continued to crop up amidst the merry-go-round of future XFL quarterbacks that the Vikings have run out since Kirk Cousins tore his Achilles is O’Connell’s offense requiring the quarterback to push the ball downfield. If Justin Jefferson had one of those meters that track how many miles he ran, it probably racked up quite the huge number while he was racing 20-30 yards away from the quarterback over and over. There was one successful screen but few other plays that seemed to call for quick passes from Hall. Instead it looked very similar to the offense that Dobbs and Mullens couldn’t master.

“The way I look at it, we have to find a way to make a couple of those early opportunities go as far as if the design of the play is there and the execution is right,” O’Connell said. “I trust our guys to go make the play and the throw and the catch when it's there to be made. Just across the board just didn't show up early enough in the game or consist enough throughout the night to avoid the outcome.”

Asked if it was an issue with Hall getting through progressions, O’Connell said:

“Just plays, early third down where maybe the number one progression might have been KJ working across the field, and we had our eyes in the wrong spot and just things that would've been hard to really predict. Then just about the time he found only rhythm on some throws and we moved the ball a little bit, then we took a sack to knock us backwards and kind of scratching uphill from there.”

Uphill seems to be exactly what all the QBs in this offense are fighting as they are required to play like Carson Palmer in order to succeed. The rookie couldn’t muster much explanation for why it went so badly.

“I’m not exactly sure what the case was for why it wasn’t clicking out there,” Hall said.

If Hall was going to succeed, it would have been in a game-manager type role, not savior. But it’s hard to game manage when there isn’t much in terms of support from the run game. Though that’s not because running back Ty Chandler played poorly against a Packers defense that had already given up 2,000-plus yards on the ground, rather that they didn’t stay with it.

On the first drive of the game Chandler gained four yards to set up third-and-1. The Vikings called for a pass play and failed. Two drives later Chandler had back-to-back 9-yard gains. Then on second-and-4 and third-and-4, they threw both times. Another fail.

On the next possession they had second-and-6 in Green Bay territory and Hall took a sack. Toward the end of the first half, Chandler ran to mid-field with a 4-yard gain on first down and the next play was a sack. Then down 17-3 with 39 seconds left in the half, rather than get to the locker room they attempted back-to-back passes, strip-sack, ballgame.

Again following a loss O’Connell pledged to look internally for answers — kinda.

“Was it play calls?” He said. “Was it technique and fundamentals? Ownership the plan? You got to take inventory, and it's not an easy process, not a fun process. But we as a coaching staff, starting with me, have to have the accountability and ownership.”

The defense did not allow Hall to game manage either. Though opposing QB Jordan Love missed some chances to light up the scoreboard early, the Packers controlled the game. Before the game busted open with Hall’s fumbled at the end of the half, Green Bay put together drives of 64 yards, 50 yards and 75 yards. Love was rarely pressured and finished the game with an Aaron Rodgers-like 22-for-34 with 256 yards passing and three touchdowns.

“I thought they had a good plan,” O’Connell said. “Any time we were soft in coverage they were taking completions. When we tightened up they were able to get some explosives down the field…. they seemed to be able to get enough of their run game going to stay efficient. There was a lot of times where they were third and shorts, third-and-inches, getting first downs, and kind of able to stay on the field and possess the ball when they moved it.”

Some of the scoring was bolstered by Hall’s mistakes. The Packers had touchdown drives of 33 yards after an early interception and 37 yards via the strip-sack but the way they were moving the ball would have required the inexperienced QB to get into a shootout with a Packers offense that has come alive since last seeing the Vikings in Week 8. That was never how they were going to win the game.

Mullens came in the second half with hopes of providing a spark but failed on a fourth down in the red zone and struggled to get anything going from there. With the Packers playing to prevent anything deep, we did not see much of the 400-yard version of Mullens that played last week against the Lions. He finished with 113 yards on 22 throws.

After the game O’Connell said that all options were on the table for the starting quarterback in Week 18 against Detroit. Having dropped five of the last six games with three different QBs, none of them look appealing at the moment. The decision will come down to whether the Vikings want to get Hall more experience since the New York Times playoff odds simulator gives them a 3% chance to make the postseason or do they want to try for the best odds to win and roll with Dobbs or Mullens?

At this point, it’s anyone’s guess who will start and the odds are probably all about equal that any of the QBs could lead them to a win over an angered Detroit team that was robbed of a win in Dallas by a refereeing error on Saturday night. What we do know is that Hall proved not to be ready to handle an entire organization’s playoff dreams on his shoulders against their most heated rival. That was probably to be expected but the enticing glimmer of the next man up kept the dream alive of overcoming Cousins’ injury a little longer.

There won’t be much hype for the QB announcement this week. That weekly newsbreak will be met with shrugs as reality has officially taken hold that the season ended in Week 8, they just didn’t know it for a few weeks after Dobbs Mania wore off.

What’s next is the real story. Whether the struggling backups are pushing them toward Cousins, whether they will draft high enough to make a run at picking a franchise QB and if there needs to be a perfect fit prototype in order to succeed in an offense that does not make things easy on the signal caller.

The only answer we got from Sunday night is that the decision to a rookie in position to pull the season from the edge came up snake eyes and there are no more rolls of the dice left for 2023.

Jaren Hall

Dec 31, 2023; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings quarterback Jaren Hall (16) throws a pass as Green Bay Packers linebacker Preston Smith (91) pursues during the first quarter at U.S. Bank Stadium.